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In conversation with women leaders - Eleni Vlami

Oaklin is conducting a series of interviews with inspirational businesswomen, exploring their journey to date and providing advice for others aspiring to follow in their footsteps. The aim of this series is to highlight the successes and challenges of being a woman in business so that other women can learn from these experiences. As we continue this series, we will also explore topics that greatly impact working women including how to seize potential and understand strengths.

Eleni Vlami

My name is Eleni Vlami. I'm originally from Greece, born and raised in Athens and currently an expat living in the UK. I usually introduce myself as a very introverted fintech nerd who really likes hiking and travelling. On the professional side, I am currently Head of Growth at Pleo. Our team is supporting the expansion and growth of Pleo’s customer base in the UK&I markets. Pleo was founded in Copenhagen in 2015. Currently the company has 7 office locations, +25,000 customers and +800 employees. With Pleo, companies can streamline and automate business spending, handle subscriptions, invoices, out-of-pocket expenses, reimbursements, etc. so employees and finance teams can stop spending time on expenses and start focusing on the work that matters.

Tell us about your journey so far and what led you to this role today.

I started my professional career at the beginning of the 2000s. I was in Greece, and I was working in banking (Citi & Piraeus Bank). After the 2008 financial crisis, I decided to pivot in my career and also move abroad. I firstly moved to the UK and I became an area manager for Aldi. I stayed there for a few years and then I moved to Sweden in 2012. At the time, the fintech industry and the startup industry were booming in the Nordics. I joined a company called Meniga and I started there as a Sales Manager. A couple of years later, Meniga decided to expand their customer portfolio to the rest of the world. They opened a new office in London, so I moved there to support with the new office, and to lead a newly established department of account management. I did that for almost six years, and then in 2022 I joined Pleo.

What has been your biggest achievement and your biggest lesson?

I would say my biggest achievement is the relationships I have been able to create on both the personal and professional level. It has made me realise the importance of having the right partnerships and creating stable networks, especially as an expat away from your home.

On the flip side, this has also been my biggest lesson! It is hard work to maintain relationships, they require a lot of time and a lot of effort from both sides. I have had some partnerships end but that is normal and is a learning point. I realised it is up to me to establish my character and the way I work and that can’t be everyone’s preference.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would go back in time to tell myself to speak up and to be honest about my feelings. I was reluctant to share my feelings when I was younger, because I was always paying too much attention to what other people might think of me. Nowadays, I always say that my strategy is that I don't apologise for being sensitive, and I don't apologise for being emotional. I've been called emotional so many times and this is often a characteristic attributed to women. When I hear someone say this to me or use it to describe someone else, after all these years, it is still considered a  red flag. On the contrary, I believe the narrative needs to change around being emotional and those that possess this should see it as a hugely positive trait.

Have you ever felt the imposter syndrome, and if so, how did you overcome it?

I have, and it has become easier for me to address since I have been labelling it as impostor syndrome and defining its actual characteristics and terminology. Because I have been managing teams for years, I always think that I'm expected to have an answer to every question that comes my way. When that doesn’t happen, you start feeling like a fraud, and questioning yourself and your knowledge.  I have been trying to resolve these feelings through mentorship programmes where I can talk through these things and share my experience and knowledge and I receive knowledge in return.

Outside of work, what are your interests and passions? How do you balance this with your work and family commitments?

As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy going for hikes and travelling. However, I’ve realised in all these years, that I no longer need to put pressure on myself to find balance, but I have instead learn to prioritise what is important for me. My family, my partner, my friends, they know that I work a lot and they also know that I will still have time for them and still have time to meet up and do things outside work. I might work late one evening, or I might work on the weekend because this is how I'm going to be able to be ok for the following week, but then on a Monday morning if I decide that I will go to a Pilates class, I will do that. It’s all about prioritising what is important for me at the time.

What advice would you give to women looking to take the next step in to leadership?

The first thing to remember is that there are many paths into leadership. I believe there are some very basic questions people need to ask themselves to figure out which path they want to take. Once they have decided which leadership path they want to take, my first advice is to go for it and go for it 100%! Be bold, even if you don't feel you're 100% ready. If you fail, you will have more information in place and you will be able to sit down again, think, plan and figure out how to proceed from there. My second piece of advice is to build a strong network, so that you can have people around you to support and help you on your leadership journey.

This series is a part of the Oaklin Women's Network. Visit the Oaklin Women's Network page to find out more.